Crime drama/comedy, rated R, 117 minutes, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and on demand, 3 chiles
In Arkansas, organized crime is a lowly affair. Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), a small-time drug dealer, laments that there are no families running things in Arkansas and no codes of honor. He’s a low man on the totem pole, running drugs for a man named Frog (Vince Vaughn), whom he’s never seen, ambling from one seedy hotel to the next but content to work in solitude. It’s a pretty uneventful life.
That all changes when he comes under Frog’s middleman, Bright (John Malkovitch), who conscripts Kyle and Swin (Clark Duke) to work for him. Their cover is that they’re all forest rangers. Duke, who directs and co-stars, uses this setup to stage Arkansas as a series of events in which its two amiable leads don’t realize the growing quagmire they find themselves in until it’s too late. Duke proves himself adept at handling comedy and rapid-fire dialogue all while building tension. Kyle and Swin are a mismatched, likable team, and their banter provides much of Arkansas’ laughs. But this is no lighthearted affair, despite Kyle and Swin’s meet-cute at the beginning of the film. It’s more of a cautionary tale.
Kyle is a hard man with sociopathic tendencies, but Hemsworth plays him like a man who’s seen his share of bitterness. You sense that there’s a heart in there somewhere. He proves it before this comedy of errors comes to a close. Swin, for his part, suffers from attention deficit disorder. He’s a flamboyant but clownish dresser who masks his insecurities by acting overconfident. There’s a charming interlude where he woos a local nurse (Eden Brolin) in the supermarket. They make an adorable pair, but you sense that their story is headed for tragedy.
On the ride back from a drug deal across state lines, Kyle and Swin don’t notice that the grandson of the man they’ve just sold the drugs to is following them back to the ranger compound. He plans to steal the money back, targeting Bright, which doesn’t end well for either of them. Kyle and Swin, not knowing anything about Frog, don’t know if he’s the one behind the hit or if they’ll be next. They bury the bodies and try to keep the status quo. The more the bodies start piling up, the deeper the hole the men find themselves in.
Told in chapters that alternate between the stories of Kyle and Swin and that of Frog, Arkansas is an engaging film about an unglamorous lifestyle. Twin trailers on pristine forest land are about the best Kyle and Swin can hope for in their line of work. Vaughn plays Frog as a sly entrepreneur, rising to the top of the crime heap, only to find that a ramshackle homestead where he buys and sells worthless junk is what it’s all amounted to. But he doesn’t mind. He accepts his fate resignedly because deep down he knows he’s a lowlife. Kyle, for his part, becomes not just Frog’s greatest enemy but, ironically, his protégé. He accepts what he is and that’s a pity. The characters in Arkansas learn truths about themselves, but no one changes.